Squatting is to be criminalized for the first time in England and Wales from 1st September, making it illegal for anyone to occupy homes and all other residential buildings.

Known as ‘Weatherley’s Law’, anyone caught living in a residential building, not paying rent or without the property owner’s permission, will now face a maximum penalty of six months in jail, a fine of £5,000, or in some cases both charges.

The new law, also backed by the Labour Party, is expected by ministers and members of the police force to offer better protection for homeowners. However, there are fears that the new law will hit hardest those most vulnerable, increasing the numbers of rough sleepers at a time of government cutbacks and rising household bills.

Previously, squatting was considered a civil matter, whereby homeowners would be required to prove to a civil court that the squatters had trespassed on their property before they could be evicted. Forcibly removing someone from a property if they refused was illegal before last Saturday. This was initially to prevent landlords using violence to remove tenants, usually referred to as ‘squatter’s rights’.

The new law now orders all forms of squatting as being a criminal matter, be it either deprivation based or by means of political protest. The police are now able for the first time to raid a building under suspect and arrest squatting offenders, if the claim is genuine. The police must prove the offender was aware of entering a building as a trespasser, intending to live or was already living in it. Squatters that live within non-residential buildings will still be able to claim ‘squatter’s rights’.

“For too long, hardworking people have faced long legal battles to get their homes back from squatters, and repair bills reaching into the thousands when they finally leave,” housing minister Grant Shapps stated in line with the new law.

“No longer will there be so-called squatters’ rights. Instead, from next week, we’re tipping the scales of justice back in favour of the homeowner and making the law crystal clear: entering a property with the intention of squatting will be a criminal offence.”

Many people in opposition to the new law argue that it does not address the key cause of why squatting exists in the first place.

Leslie Morphy, chief executive of the homeless charity Crisis, said the introduction of this law “will do nothing to address the underlying reasons why vulnerable people squat in the first place – their homelessness and a lack of affordable housing”. Data company SSentif announced that new figures show the number of households in need of emergency accommodation has risen by around 25% in England over the past three years.

Despite the contention towards the new measures, the government has said figures for homelessness are the lowest it has been for 28 years.

“We have maintained funding for homelessness grants at 2010-11 levels with £400m over the next four years, and on top of that we announced an additional £70m investment over the last year,” a spokesperson for the Department for Communities and Local Government said.

Squatting in Scotland has been illegal since mid 19th century, where a property owner has the right to remove squatters without notice or applying to the civil court for an eviction order.

More information about the guidance issued for the police and other law enforcement agencies, as presented by the Ministry of Justice, can be found by clicking the following link:

http://www.justice.gov.uk/legislation/bills-and-acts/circulars/commencement-of-offence-of-squatting-in-a-residential-building

BY: Tom Randall